After the Washington Redskins triumphed in Super Bowl XXII, the Skins braintrust knew it would need to reload, especially on defense.
In particular, the Washington linebacking corps was going to need some new blood sooner rather than later. Veteran Rich Milot retired in the offseason, and Mel Kaufman and Neil Olkewicz were now in their 30s.
The solution? Wilber Marshall.
Marshall was the All-Pro linebacker for the Chicago Bears who had been an instrumental part of the legendary Bears defense of the mid-80s. Marshall had gotten to see the Redskins up-close, as the two teams had met in the 1984, 1986, and 1987 playoffs. Washington won the latter two contests at Soldier Field to end what could have been a budding dynasty.
Now, Marshall would be joining the Redskins.
Signing a high-priced free agent was a departure for the Skins of that era. The free agents Washington normally got were cast-offs or overlooked players that Joe Gibbs and company somehow managed to mold into serviceable-to-good players (see, e.g., Joe Jacoby).
The Redskins made an exception for Marshall, who was best known as an outside linebacker, but who could play any linebacker position if necessary. He was a fearsome pass-rusher coming out of the University of Florida, and the early part of his career had been extremely successful.
It’s also important to note that free agency worked much, much differently in the NFL in the 1980s, making it difficult for teams to sign away top players from other franchises. To give you an idea of how different things were during that era, consider two facts:
One, the offer from the Redskins was five years, six million dollars. Not six million per year, six total. Oh, and, p.s., that contract made him the highest-paid defensive player in the history of the NFL up to that point.
Two, when Marshall went to the Redskins, he became the first NFL free agent in 11 years to switch teams.
In this case, the Redskins managed to get Marshall only after the Bears declined to match Washington’s offer. As a sidebar, the main reason the Bears didn’t match is that Mike Singletary had a “favored-nations” clause in his contract. This meant that he had to be the Bears’ highest-paid defensive player. If the Bears had re-signed Marshall for $1.2 million, then Singletary’s salary would automatically increase to $1,200,001 per year.
Even with the Bears declining to match Washington’s offer, the Redskins had to give up a couple of first-round draft picks to get Marshall under the free-agent compensation scheme that existed at the time. Joe Gibbs believed Marshall was worth it.
Marshall proved Gibbs right.
The then-26-year-old started every game for the Redskins in 1988, finishing with three interceptions, four sacks, and 133 tackles. Marshall continued his solid play the next two seasons, helping Washington back to the playoffs in 1990.
In 1991, Marshall had a tremendous season, picking off five passes, forcing four fumbles, earning 5.5 sacks, and winding up with 135 tackles. The Redskins wound up as the #2 defense in the NFL (behind only the absolutely loaded ‘91 Eagles), and, more importantly, Washington went on to rout the Bills to win Super Bowl XXVI. Marshall, who earned second-team All-Pro honors that year, was particularly great in the NFC Championship Game, sacking Lions’ QB Erik Kramer three times.
As great as he had been up to that point, 1992 was probably Marshall’s finest individual season. He tied a career high with six sacks, intercepted two passes, forced three fumbles, recovered three fumbles, and made 138 tackles, also a career high. He was named first-team All-Pro for the second time in his career, and he won NFC Defensive Player of the Year honors, the last Redskin to earn that honor.
1992 was the end of his five-year deal with Washington, and Marshall moved on to Houston, where he was reunited with former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. He played two more seasons after that, in Arizona (where Ryan had been named head coach) and then with the Jets.
Marshall turned out to be one of the better investments the Redskins ever made. For his excellent individual play and key contributions to a Super Bowl title, Marshall is an easy choice for the Redskins’ all-time #58.
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